Column: Spectrum's the thing in way of personal communications services

Before personal communications services take off in New Zealand there's the small matter of finding radio frequencies for them to use.

Personal communication services (PCS) might be set to be the next big thing in telecommunications, but before that can happen in New Zealand there’s the small matter of finding the radio spectrum for them to run on.

Two local telcos--Telecom and BellSouth--plan to have PCS offerings out by the end of the year. However, the Ministry of Commerce has yet to allocate spectrum for such technology.

The ministry’s communications division is currently putting together what has become known as the “Two-gigahertz report” (because of the range of PCS bandwidth) on how to handle the next stage of spectrum allocation.

“There’re no insurmountable difficulties as yet,” says division general manager Hunter Donaldson.

The main issues seem to concern the different standards for PCS. There’s DECT (digital enhanced cordless telephony), which operates in the 1880-1900MHz spectrum--quite a small band--and DCS-1800 and DCS1900, which has been described as GSM at a higher frequency. And a number of Asian countries use the Japanese PHS standard.

There’s quite a bit of overlap among those technologies.

To complicate matters, some of that spectrum is already taken up with existing services, most notably the three television channels.

“There are some interesting issues still to be decided about accommodating them or shifting some of those services somewhere else,” says Donaldson.

“What we have to do is come up with some ideas about how we will do this.”

Also still to be decided is how the frequencies will be allocated.

The government has experimented with a number of methods, basically variations on tendering and auctioning. The main criteria have been commercial.

However, several opposition parties--most notably the Alliance--have indicated they want other social criteria to be taken into account, even though several parts of the spectrum are already allocated for public policy purposes.

While this isn’t exactly the sort of stuff that sets the campaign trail on fire, with the Radio Communications Act currently under review it would be easy enough for a more interventionist parliament to tack on a few amendments.

Further changes could be in the adoption of some sort of “use it or lose it” approach to those who hold licences.

This issue has come up from time to time, most recently in the case of Telstra, which has held a GSM licence since the early 1990s but has yet to offer any services on it.

Again, some opposition parties have made rumblings about it, but whether this has just been a stick to beat the government with, or the basis of concrete policy, remains to be seen.

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